Anna Sale: Does the word accident feel like the right word?
John Vargas: No, it doesn't, but that's what I say to people who don't...if they have any kind of inkling, or like I said, I don't talk about it.
Anna Sale: Why doesn't the word accident feel right to you?
John Vargas: Because, in my head, it shouldn't happened. I should have saw her. I beat myself up and I will beat myself up the rest of my life trying to figure it all out.
This is Death, Sex & Money, the show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more. I'm Anna Sale.
John Vargas is 56. He lives in Chicago and works for a utility company there.
John Vargas: And I've worked for them for 34 years. 23 of them as a underground person. I worked in manholes, splicing cables, lead cables, And then I was a crew leader, leading the crew. And then, in 2007, I took the foreman position.
Nearly five years ago, one Saturday morning, towards the end of January, he reported in for work.
John Vargas: I'd gotten the crews off that morning. It was going to be a very nice January. I say that because you give out a message in the morning, and the message was, "Hey, it's going to be a nice day, guys." We drive big trucks. The guys drive big crew trucks, bucket trucks, whatever you want to call them, line trucks. You remind them, "Hey, it's going to be a nice day today. Unusual for January. People are going to be out and about. People are going to be walking. Just be aware you're driving. Be careful."
John spent the morning driving around in his truck talking with other foremen on the phone, checking in with his various work sites. Around lunchtime, he stopped off at his house to make a sandwich to eat in his truck, and then started driving back towards the office. He got to an intersection across from a local restaurant. And he put his blinker on.
John Vargas: I had the green light. I had seen the arrow, got into the turn lane to make a left-hand turn to go West. As I made the turn, obviously, I was slowing down. Something caught my attention. I looked to the right, still turning to the left. When I looked back, as I was in the turn, pretty much getting ready to go straight, there was someone. A older woman and I was like, "Oh shit," and I hit the brakes. The truck bumped her. I wasn't going that fast, obviously, but I bumped her enough that she fell away from the truck. I jumped out.
There was two men standing there. The guy, I remember him looking at me saying, "Oh dude, I was trying to get your attention. She wasn't paying attention. She was on her phone. She wasn't paying attention." Then everything clicked in. I ran to my truck. I got the first-aid kit. There was already a couple of people behind, kneeling down by the elderly woman. That was it. I remember talking to her and comforting her, telling her, "It's going to be okay." Then the paramedics showed up, and came up to me, and asked me if I was okay. People started asking me questions.
I don't remember what they were asking me. The paramedic did ask me, "Are you okay?" I said, "Yes." My right hand which-- You don't even think about it. My right hand was covered in blood. [sobs] Bear with me a minute because I can feel that coldness as I remember it that day. You feel it now. He asked if that was my blood. I said, "No, that's not my blood. I'm fine." He got me a towel, and that was it. All these people were showing up, and I was questioned by the police and told them what happened. Then some other people approached me.
There was a couple I'll never forget. They were both in matching Carhartt jackets. She walked up to me with her husband, and she said, "Listen, it's okay. It's going to be all right."
Then the restaurant owner talked to me. The waitress was standing there, and they said, "Listen, it's okay. It's a terrible corner in that town for accidents." All the stuff was swirling around me. [silence] Finally, the ambulance left. Before the ambulance left, they told me that she had passed away. That was pretty much the end of me for that moment. I just lost it there because never in a million years did I think that was going to happen. I just believed it was going to be okay, and that was it. It never occurred to me that that was going to be the outcome.
Anna Sale: How do you think back on it —So many people when they were trying to comfort you, the thing that they told you was it's going to be okay. How do you think back on that?
John Vargas: It's comforting, but it doesn't matter because, in my mind and in my head, I'm better than that. Why didn't I see her? I will go to my grave questioning myself for that. You know what I mean?
Anna Sale: Yes.
John Vargas: No matter what, I don't know how I didn't see her. I knew it was an empty intersection, there were no cars. I saw everything. Did I scan too fast? Did I look away? Shouldn't I have not looked away? To the point where, why didn't I eat at home? Why didn't I stop and see that crew? What could I have done to offset this time that I wasn't there at that moment? That's what I live with.
And John is far from the only one. Accidental injuries are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Nearly 200,000 people die every year from overdoses, fires, unintentional gun discharges, falls, and car crashes. And in some of those accidental deaths, the person who caused them survives.
Female Speaker 1: The kids were attempting to cross the road from their bus stop to the bus that was on the other side of the road when they were hit by a pickup truck.
Male Speaker 1: ...2016 2500 Dodge pickup collided with a group of motorcycle riders from the Jarheads Motorcycle Club on that two-lane highway...
Male Speaker 2: ...an apparent accidental shooting of a woman on a New Mexico movie set...
Female Speaker 2: Improperly disposed smoking materials are to blame. Two people are dead.
Female Speaker 3: The teens were handling a shotgun when it suddenly fell, knocked off an appliance inside the garage, and discharged, hitting the victim.
John Vargas: When you're reading or watching about the hit and run, about this and that, nobody talks about that person on the other side. Do they think we wake up in the morning and wanted this to happen?
Anna Sale: Where did you go that evening?
John Vargas: I went home. I got a ride home. I told my daughter. That was tough. She was what? 18 at the time. How do you tell your daughter that? How do you talk about something like that? You're supposed to be the example. How do you tell your daughter what you did? That was that. I think I told my mom, then later that night, I went out with a handful of friends. It was a distraction. You know what I mean?
Anna Sale: Uh-huh. Did they all know what had happened?
John Vargas: Yes, yes. It was kind of a...they were rallying behind me, and it was going to be okay, and support.
Anna Sale: Where did you go together?
John Vargas: I think we went to a Mexican restaurant and had drinks and conversation. It was nice, but I wasn't there mentally. I was still at that scene. I was still trying to help that woman in my head. The whole outcome, it was just shock. You're just going through the motions, you know?
After his accident, John was not charged with the crime. He signed some forms for his company, and that was it. He believes there was a settlement with the family of the woman who died. And not long after, he returned to work.
But John didn't feel absolved of anything.
John Vargas: Of all the things that I've been through, divorces, losses of family, you name it, everybody goes through stuff. You just deal with it and you go on, but this, I knew I couldn't do this. I knew right away I couldn't do this, and I had to do something. I didn't know what, but I had to do something. I called my doctor. I told her what happened, and she referred me to a psychiatrist. I met with the psychiatrist a few days later, and she, in a nice way said, "I can't help you." I went, "Oh, I'm that crazy, huh?" She laughed. She goes, "No." She goes, "You need a specialized person. You need a trauma counselor," is how she put it. Luckily, she knew someone, and that led me to the counselor I see now once a week.
Anna Sale: Was it hard for you to ask for help, or you felt like, "This is just what I need right now"?
John Vargas: It was hard. It was hard to talk about obviously. Here I am, what was I at the time? 51, 52? This doesn't happen to me. This doesn't happen. This can't be happening, but I knew something. I had to do something because there was no way. I was experiencing and feeling things that I had never felt before in my life. Sleeping, I went to bed that night, it was there. I couldn't fall asleep. I was afraid to go to sleep because I kept seeing it. My body was reacting weird. I was twitching. I was seeing things come at me. It was like a living nightmare.
The coldness that I talked about on my right hand, that wouldn't go away. My hand was cold. I kept wearing a glove, and I thought it was weird. It wouldn't go away. It was the weirdest thing. It was so cold.
Therapy helped John a lot. He also started meditating. But he still felt isolated and hadn't found anyone else who had been through what he had.
John Vargas: There's nowhere for us to go. You can walk into any place in any town, any city, there's an Alcoholics Anonymous. There's a Smokers Anonymous. This is, we're like a bunch of-- I described it as like the Scarlet letter. We all have our Scarlet letter, but we don't know we're out there, and we don't know how to meet, and we don't know how to comfort each other. We don't know because there's nothing that leads us to each other.
Coming up, John finds someone who knows what he's going through. A whole community of people.
Theresa Ruf: You know, you feel so alone when this happens. In all fairness, we tend to isolate ourselves.
There’s a new book out that I want to tell you about: it’s called Collective Wisdom: Lessons, Inspiration and Advice from Women over 50. I thought you'd like it, because flipping through its beautiful photographs and stories made me feel connected, inspired, and like I was meeting a cousin, or something, of Death, Sex & Money. The book is edited by Grace Bonney, and features nearly 100 women from communities across the United States. Some of whom you’ve heard on the show: like writer Norma Elia Cantu and journalist Maria Hinojosa. It also celebrates cross-generational friendships like between disability activists Alice Wong and Sandy Ho….and my friendship with Ann Simpson of Wyoming, who happens to be 49 years older than me.
Again, it’s called Collective Wisdom, go check it out -- and you can find our series about aging at deathsexmoney.org/aging. Let’s hear it for media that honors and celebrates the stories of older people.
One other important production note: the producer who led that series on aging for us, Anabel Bacon, is heading off to a new job after four years with us. We will really miss her on the team...her creativity, dedication and for always being up for trying new things. Thank you, Anabel. We wish you the very best!
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale. About six months after his accident, with the help of his therapist, John Vargas found a Facebook support group for people who have caused fatal accidents. For him, it was a lifeline.
Anna Sale: What was it like the first time you went to that Facebook page?
John Vargas: Oh, it was a huge relief. It was like the parting of the Red Sea or something. It was just like, "Holy cow, I'm not alone."
The group is called Accidental Casualty Survivors, and it was founded in 2016 by a woman named Theresa Ruf. It's not a large group, a little over 100 members, but the people who have found it are active.
Theresa Ruf: I get notifications every time someone posts because I'm the moderator as well. All day long, every day, I'm getting requests to join the group, emails because I try and screen everyone. I do screen everyone that comes through. It's a 24/7 thing.
Like John, Theresa lives in Illinois. In 2012, she was 42 and driving home from work when she came around a sharp corner. She says the sun hit her eyes, and she rear-ended a motorcyclist who had slowed down to turn into his driveway. The man died. And unlike John, Theresa's case entered the court system, where it dragged on for eight years. She was charged with negligent homicide. She says she hadn't been speeding or on her phone, and she had no drugs or alcohol in her system.
As Theresa's case was stuck in limbo, the rest of her life was too. She wasn't allowed to leave the state without getting permission from a judge. She stopped working, and she and her husband declared bankruptcy. She never even went back to her house after the accident. She says it was too hard.
Theresa Ruf: I just became stagnant. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat. I don't have any friends or anything anymore because I just stopped returning phone calls and stopped socializing. Then, some people just distanced themselves because they didn't want to talk about it, or they felt uncomfortable. Really, it's just my husband and I now.
Theresa and her husband lived in a small town, a life they'd loved before the accident. It meant that after, she felt really conspicuous walking around. She wasn't sure who knew what had happened, and who was angry at what she had done, so she was cautious with what she shared with people.
Theresa Ruf: For example, I went to get my haircut, and my hairdresser asked me after the accident, "How are you and everything?" I told her what happened. It turned out that her mother-in-law, the exact same thing had happened to her in another nearby town, and she went into her basement, moved everything into her basement, and never left her basement again. Then my husband and I were looking for a new home not long ago, and the realtor that was showing us this one house, I had to explain to him, you know, we gave our old house in this different county back to the bank because of this accident that happened. And I told him about the accident. He was an elderly man, and he broke down crying. He said, "I understand. The same thing happened to my father exactly, and he was never right again after it."
Anna Sale: Wow.
Theresa Ruf: So I think it's more prevalent than people -- people just don't talk about it.
But Theresa needed to talk, and so she spent a lot of time online looking for anywhere that she might be able to have those conversations. She did find something.
Theresa Ruf: There's a website called accidentalimpacts.org. That was the only thing I found at the time. You're looking for what do I do? How do I get through this? That was the only site I could find. And then there were so many stories on there of people who have gone through the same thing, but there was no way for us to directly interact with one another. Everyone would just leave their story because it was a blog-type setting. So that was where I got the idea of creating a closed private group where we could have direct interaction with one another. And we have a few members that are mothers of juveniles that are struggling with trying to get their child the right help because their children have been through this, or wives of husbands, men tend—not to be sexist—but men tend to be a little more hesitant to want to get help and to want to talk about things. Their wives often will be in the group and look for advice as to how to approach their husbands. We can tell them, as being survivors of accidents, "What you really want is just somebody to listen."
Anna Sale: What have you found is this thing that you say? What do you want to say to someone who comes to your group who's had this experience? Who's had an accident fairly recently? What's the sentence you choose to say to them?
Theresa Ruf: The first thing I do is let them know that we're glad that they found us. We're sorry that they had to find us the way that they did, but we're glad that they found us. To let them know that they are safe here, that everything is locked down, that their friends aren't going to know they're in this group. Every single person has had to provide identification and proof of their accident with their name on it. That there's not going to be any looky-loos. That's the main thing people worry about is, are people going to just be able to join the group just to read things, or peep at other people's stories?
So to let them know they're safe and secure, and that people there understand, and care about them, and will support them. And I'm not quite sure why everyone tells their stories when they join the group because I don't ask that of them, we don't ask that of them. But I think they see everyone else telling their stories, and they feel it helps to get it out there and talk about it. I know for myself, talking about it, for the first several years, I couldn't talk about it at all. I think it helps them to get it off their chest in a safe place where people aren't going to judge them or think they're a killer. It's really painful. Just trying to assure them that they're safe there and people aren't going to judge them.
Another thing Theresa tries to share with the people in her group is the specific kind of therapy that she's found helpful. Her therapist practices EMDR, eye motion desensitization and reprocessing. It's an intensive kind of therapy that helps patients process traumatic memories and experiences using physical cues like therapist-directed eye motion and finger tapping.
Theresa Ruf: That's actually been the first thing that's given me any relief.
Anna Sale: When did you find your current therapist?
Theresa Ruf: I believe a year and a half ago.
Anna Sale: Oh, so it took quite some time?
Theresa Ruf: Yes. It's really hard to find somebody that you really meld with and that really understands what's going on. You think you're going crazy because you lose your memory, and just the way you behave, the fight or flight thing comes in. You start getting real self-protective and real isolationist-type behavior. She explained to me how the brain actually physiologically changes and how you can see the PTSD on an MRI. So I'm like, "Okay, I'm not going crazy. This is actually a physical injury that happened to me." They've said that the repercussions of our accidents are most similar to what soldiers go through, I guess, with PTSD.
I can deal with that because there's a way to fix that that isn't medication, or "How does that make you feel?" That just doesn't work for me. Sitting on pillows and drinking tea — I don't know, it's hard to explain. The trauma of this type of thing isn't something that you can discuss over tea and feel better talking to somebody about.
Anna Sale: Yes, talk your way around and out of.
Theresa Ruf: So I want to try and encourage other people to go to the right therapist early on. It has worked because there are some people in our group that are even 40 years out from their accident, that finally went and went to a trauma therapist and started EMDR, and they're actually feeling better for the first time in 40 years. So getting out the word, I guess, that people need to get the right therapy early on, that's my goal.
Anna Sale: Talking to other people who've had similar accidents where someone was gravely injured or died, what have you learned about how, what you felt and were feeling immediately afterwards? How similar is that to what you've heard from other people?
Theresa Ruf: Actually, strangely enough, no matter what the circumstances were, of the accident, we all suffer the exact same. We all go through the exact, exact identical responses. We all have the depression, the survivor's guilt, the anxiety, the, what they call, I guess, moral injury. You feel like you've done something completely against your moral character, and that you'll never be able to rectify it, and you'll never be good again. Whether someone is culpable or not, it seems like we all go through the exact same things. The isolation, the not wanting to talk to anybody, the not wanting to socialize.
The exact same things. When I first heard moral injury, I'm like, "Oh, that's what it is. That's exactly how I feel. Like nothing I can ever do will ever make me a good person again." You can't bring someone back, and that's the only way to fix it. And I think, selfishly, that's probably part of the reason, if I'm being honest, why I started the group was, maybe this is something I could do to feel a little better about myself by helping other people. I can feel a little selfishly it helps me, too, you know?
John told me that more than four years after his accident, he still checks the Facebook group regularly. It feels like a haven from the rest of the world. He's shared his own story there, and he'll frequently respond to other members when they post something.
John Vargas: Usually once a day, I'll go over there just to see what's going on because that's my support. That's where you get comfort. When something hits me, I'll say it, and I'll share. Sometimes I get it, and I'll just write something supportive. Sometimes it'll just be a heart. I get it.
Anna Sale: Those friends of yours who said, "John, let's go to this Mexican place. We want to be with you tonight. We know you've had a really terrible thing happen," have you continued to talk to them about it?
John Vargas: No. A few of them have said, "You know what? That was in the past. That's gone. You got to move on. You got to do this." You know what? I'm still friends with them, but I don't talk about it. I don't bring it up because they don't get it. They'll never get it, and there's no point to it. I can sit here and talk to you about it. I can talk to that group about it. I can't talk to anyone else about it because they don't get it. That would be the answer or reply I would get. "It's been a while." They don't have any idea. Rather than get upset and getting emotional, I just—it's not worth it bringing it up.
Anna Sale: Did you ever think about not going back to the same job?
John Vargas: Yeah, I was asked, too, if I wanted to do something else because a lot of our work is driving. Drive from one location to another, one problem to another. It's a big part of my job. I thought about it, I said, "No, this is all that I know. This is all that I do." There's the part of me, the guy part that says, "You know what? I'm not going to let this deter me. I'm going to keep doing my job. I'm going to be strong and handle it," but yeah.
Anna Sale: What's that like for you, driving around for work in those big trucks?
John Vargas: It's not the easiest thing in the world. The hardest thing for me is just working for the company I work for. Safety is a very big deal. There's safety subjects and topics to read out every morning, to cover with the guys. Driving ones are especially difficult for me, but I do them. In our training, sometimes they show videos of driving techniques. They obviously show accidents, drunk driving. Those are the ones where you just want to crawl under the table, that you want to tuck tail and run, but you can't because it's part of the job.
John drove himself to the studio in Chicago on the day we talked. It was the same day and at the same studio where Theresa came for her interview. Her husband drove her. She doesn't drive anymore. She hasn't since her accident.
Theresa Ruf: I could drive now if I chose to, but I just choose not to yet. You have a foreboding feeling that something terrible is always about to happen. It makes you a little bit paranoid that something always terrible is right around the corner.
Anna Sale: Who was the first person that you met who had been in a similar accident where they accidentally took someone's life?
Theresa Ruf: Actually today and in the lobby, was the first person that I met from my group that came to give moral support here today.
She's talking about John.
Theresa Ruf: He's actually the first person I was actually able to physically be in the presence of and give him a hug, which was-- I can't even explain. It's like meeting somebody that finally knows how you feel.
Anna Sale: Today was the first day?
Theresa Ruf: Today was the first day, yes. It's a beautiful thing. It's beautiful, but it's a horrible thing because you don't want anybody to be feeling the way that you're feeling. I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy, but to meet somebody that you can look in the eye, and you know how they're feeling, you know the pain they're going through, it's just like such a-- I can't even explain it. It's just like, "Oh, thank God, there's another person that knows how I feel." It's just, these people are so amazing. I love them like they were family.
John Vargas: It's like an old friend. It's hard to explain, but it's like you've known this person all your life because you've shared something, and you've experienced something no one else hopefully never will, but we have like I said. So there's a huge relief and comfort to it, and we're connected now.
That's John Vargas and his friend, Theresa Ruf.
John continues to work for the utility company, and since we talked, Theresa's legal case has finally resolved. She struck a deal with the state's attorney and pled guilty to a single charge of reckless driving. She served 2 weeks in a county jail, performed 200 hours of community service, and is halfway through 2 years of probation. She and her husband just bought a house an hour away from their old town, and she says it feels like a fresh start. She still doesn't drive.
If you or someone you love has caused a fatal accident, we've gathered a list of resources you might find helpful, including the Accidental Impacts website and the Facebook group that Theresa runs. You can find all of that on the web page for this episode, at deathsexmoney.org. And you'll also find a link there to a wonderful article in The New Yorker in 2017 about the experience of accidental death. It's by Alice Gregory, and it's called The Sorrow and Shame of the Accidental Killer.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Anabel Bacon. The rest of our team includes Katie Bishop, Emily Botein, Afi Yellow-Duke, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Sarah Dealey. The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music. I'm on Instagram @annasalepics, P-I-C-S, and the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Thank you to Melanie Mah in Toronto, Ontario who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Melanie and support what we do here, by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate. John told me that the anniversaries of his accident are always hard, but he tries to do some good on those days.
The first year he went to the restaurant by the intersection where the crash happened. He told the owner who he was, and she told him that the woman who died used to come in there every Saturday for lunch with a group of friends, so John gave her his credit card.
John Vargas: Thinking in my head that maybe those people that she met still came there for lunch. From that time period, I wanted to buy lunch for everyone. I said listen, "Just leave it open, and whoever is having lunch. I'm picking up their lunch."
I'm Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
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